Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Giving Pledge and the Tuition Crisis

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz pledges a million dollars to Mir Avreichim (Matzav)
There are a lot of billionaires in the world. Some of them are Jewish. And it seems that Orthodox Jewry may have a few of those billionaires counted among them too.

I consider myself fortunate to know some very wealthy Orthodox Jews. I don’t really know if they are billionaires. But considering the amount of money they each give to various Jewish causes – in the many millions annually, it would not surprise me if they were. I am happy for them and am pleased that that they are able to enjoy their wealth and at the same time use that wealth for good. 

One particular very wealthy friend of mine told me many years ago that he gives approximately half of his income away every year to Orthodox Jewish institutions – mostly religious day schools, high schools, and Yeshivos.

This was all brought to mind yesterday when Orthodox Jewish philanthropist Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz pledged what amounts to half of next month’s income to the Avreichim of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem. It will be in the form of matching their monthly stipend – doubling their income for the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. After making this pledge  - he added: 
“An avreich gives tzedakah at the expense of bread and milk, and his child’s shoes. If I make a million dollars in two weeks, how can I observe something like this and sit by quietly?” 
What a truly generous man Mr. Rechnitz is. This is not the first time he has been generous with his money. Nor is his alma mater, Yeshivas Mir,  the only place he has been generous to.

Another thought that came to mind is what Bill and Melinda Gates are doing along with their ‘partner in crime’ Warren Buffet. They have created a very special club for billionaires. Joining that club requires only one thing: A pledge to give away half of their fortune to the charity of their choice. They call it ‘The Giving Pledge’.  Among billionaires who joined are some very prominent political, business, media, and entertainment people whose names most people will surely recognize. Names like Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas, and Ted Turner.  As of 2010, over forty billionaire have signed up pledging to give away half of their fortune.

Now we Orthodox Jews do not have such a club. At least not that I am aware of. But it would not surprise me if many of the multi millionaires that I know already do that anyway. Which is of course to their credit. But this got me to thinking about the tuition crisis again. There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that most Orthodox religious schools struggle to meet their budgets. Many do not and run deficits every year. And in all cases that I am aware of it is the parents that are asked to shoulder the lion’s share of that burden. 

Most parents in ‘the sytem’ are not millionaires. Even some of the more affluent among them making well into six figure incomes can often not pay full tuition. They too receive tuition assistance in the form of partial scholarships. Especially when they have a large family that very often consists of 5 or more children. In such cases the actual tuition fee can run into six figures itself in some of the pricier schools. And most people make less than six figure incomes.

There have been many suggestions about how to solve this crisis. Some of them practical, some of them not. Some implemented in some schools. Some not. Some involve cost cutting. Others involve novel ways to raise money. But as of now, none of these solutions even if they are all implemented in every school will solve this crisis. 

The biggest ‘budget buster’ is of course the salaries of the teachers and administration. And that is as it should be. Gone are the days (for most schools) of starvation wages for Rebbeim and Moros, who had to seek second jobs just to make ends meet. They are now paid a relatively decent wage, although certainly not what a good teacher should make. 

In my view good teachers are still underpaid and deserve a lot more for all their hard work and dedication. So we have this conundrum of wanting teachers to get paid what they deserve; pushing parents (as the beneficiaries of their  schools via the education of their children) to the max; and still falling way short of meeting a budget where teacher are still not paid what they deserve. 

I think everyone knows where I am going with this by now. What about a billionaires club for Orthodox Jewish billionaires. Or even a multi-millionaires. club  But instead of pledging half of their considerable fortunes to the charity of their choice, pledge it to the Yeshivas, high schools, or day schools of their choice in the cities where they live. 

If that were done, I think it would go a long way to solving the tuition crisis. This does not mean that parents shouldn’t pay what they can afford. Of course they should. But it might lighten their load just a bit and it would certainly ease the pressure they constantly feel. 

I happen to believe (and I have no real way of knowing this… it’s just a hunch) that the money is there. If all of Orthodox Jewish billionaires and multi millionaires were to pledge half of their fortunes to the schools in their own cities - I think it might just solve the problem. And I do not think it would hurt their lifestyles - which they have rightfully earned and are certainly entitled to enjoy.

What about the other worthy institutions? I’m sure that there might even be some only left over in the other half of their fortunes for that too. Or in lieu of that - perhaps 10% of that pledge can be designated to those other worthy causes.

So to all you fabulously wealthy Orthodox Jews out there…  how about it, guys? You game? You willing to ‘take the pledge’?

Of course I could be way off base on all of this. It might already be happening in a practical sense. I don't know. Its just a thought. But if I'm right. it's a darn good one.